When Alan Johnson, the home secretary, expresses outrage at the decision of the BBC to invite the neo-fascist British National Party on to its Question Time programme this week, you know something is not quite right. This is a stench of opportunist hypocrisy here that is overpowering.
Johnson condemned the BBC for giving the party a platform it doesn't deserve. "They are a white-supremacist party," he said. "They are an illegally constituted party. They should be confronted in argument. I've been doing that all my life. But I won't appear on this platform with the BNP, because you're talking about bringing them in, to be a legitimate political party, to sit on this platform."
Firstly, if anyone should come under fire it is Johnson’s own New Labour and not the BBC. The programme could not have gone ahead if Gordon Brown had, as leader of his party, decided that New Labour would hold to its position of not sharing a platform with the BNP. Instead, Jack Straw, justice secretary, is to appear with BNP leader Nick Griffin. Johnson neatly sidesteps that one, perhaps with one eye on a bid to take over from Brown sooner rather than later.
Secondly, Johnson is no position to lecture the BNP, as he and the government have pursued policies that have played right into its hands. The constant demonization of asylum seekers, through policies that have included vouchers, the denial of emergency housing and medical treatment, has fed the prejudices of the right-wing press and the BNP.
Only last month, Johnson himself expressed his “delight” at the “swift and decisive” action by French riot police against mainly Afghan refugees living in a make-shift camp near Calais. What Johnson denoted a “dignified success” was a squalid business, where distressed teenagers were confronted by uniformed thugs, as video reports like the one by Jason Parkinson show.
Of course, it’s alright to send thousands of troops to invade Afghanistan. When a few hundred people turn up seeking asylum and refuge from that poor, war-ravaged, corrupt country, they are treated as if they were a major threat to “our way of life”.
The tone was set early on in the history of New Labour. David Blunkett, a former home secretary, claimed in 2002 that asylum seekers were “swamping some British schools” and that there was a case for educating them separately. He won the backing of the then prime minister Tony Blair – and no doubt of the BNP too!
Johnson claims that the BNP is not a “legitimate party” and should be denied access to the BBC on that basis alone. Agreeing to that point of view, however, would allow the political establishment and the state to decide who and who is not “legitimate”. Once you go down that road, anti-capitalist groups and parties could, for example, at some stage also be designated beyond the pale.
It is actually the break-up of “legitimate” parliamentary politics, in particular the transformation of New Labour into an openly capitalist party, that has fuelled the growth of the BNP’s influence and support. As the expenses scandal demonstrates, this process is continuing apace, with or without the BNP appearing on Question Time.
The political establishment has no answers to the destabilisation produced by the coincidence of the demise of traditional politics with a profound economic crisis. The democracy they allegedly promote is hollowed out and is now under open attack from the extreme right-wing. You can only counter that threat by extending and renewing democracy in new ways, setting out to transfer actual power at the level of the state into the hands of ordinary people. That’s the best way to fight the BNP.